Punting the Interesting Answers to the Secret Session
The dictionary tells us that "oversight" can mean either watchful supervision or an omission caused by inattention. As it held a confirmation hearing for CIA nominee Michael Hayden yesterday, the Senate intelligence committee seemed to be operating under the latter definition.
With Hayden's confirmation never in doubt -- "you're gonna be one of America's best CIA directors," proclaimed Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) -- the committee's rare public hearing offered a chance to have an examination of the administration's eavesdropping programs. Instead, senators and the nominee implemented a new "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Democrats, briefed on the secret National Security Agency programs on the eve of the hearing, were now prevented from talking about its classified details other than to cite news reports. Several Republicans limited their oversight responsibilities largely to praising the administration. And Hayden, referring to Congress as "the second branch of government," punted all the interesting answers to a later, secret session.
Is the NSA eavesdropping program that President Bush confirmed the entire program? "I'm not at liberty to talk about that in open session," Hayden said.
Can detainees be held in secret for decades? "Let me give it to you in the closed session."
Is "waterboarding" an acceptable interrogation technique? "Again, let me defer that to closed session."
What does he think of forecasts that Iran is years away from nuclear capability? "I would be happy to give additional detail in closed session."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) posed as Hayden's lawyer. "Sounds to me like you've made a real effort to try and help members of Congress to be aware of what was going on," he told Hayden. The nominee answered in the affirmative.
"You wanted to protect American citizens from terrorists all over the world?" Hatch pressed.
"Yes, sir," Hayden answered. "Yes, sir. Exactly."
These answers evidently satisfied Hatch. "I want to commend you, because I think you have really protected the American people," he said.
Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) made clear that he knew everything he needed to know. "I can say without hesitation, I believe that the NSA terrorist surveillance program is legal, it is necessary, and without it the American people would be less safe," he said.